The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and The Human Origins Debate

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When I look back at the books I read in seminary, few are as game changing and paradigm shifting for me as John Walton’s Ancient Near East Thought and The Old Testament. It was even for a class, but was recommend by two of my Hebrew professors as a good resource into the cultural background of the Old Testament. That journey into what Walton called the cognitive environment of the Old Testament revolutionized the way I understood parts of the Old Testament. Chief among them was the early chapters of Genesis.

This was accelerated after I read Walton’s next book The Lost World of Genesis One. I’ve blogged about it before, and you can read some of the fruit here. Later I would read The Lost World of Scripture, a kind of sequel, which has another followup on the way. Around that same time I read Four Views on The Historical Adam in which Walton argues for the “Archetypal View.” And then just recently I made my way through The Lost World of Adam and Eveand that brings us up to speed.

Walton’s modus operandi in these sorts of books is to set out his ideas in the form of propositions. Kind of novel right? Each chapter focuses on a different proposition that Walton gives evidence for. They move in a kind of sequential order, but you could still read the chapters in isolation. I don’t know why you’d want to do that, but you could.

For this volume, much of the legwork is done in The Lost World of Genesis One. Walton rearticulates his main thesis from that, which is that creation is primarily functional rather than material. He probably presses this too far, but the functional aspect had been overlooked. This takes the first five propositions, and then from that we move into territory directly related to how we understand Adam and Eve.

He first notes that “Adam” is used in multiple ways (Prop. 6), before suggesting that Genesis 2 is a sequel to Genesis 1 rather than an in-depth focus on the sixth day (Prop. 7). From here, he explains how to reconcile the dust of the ground and rib from Adam’s side reconcile with his emphasis on creation begin functional rather than material (Prop. 8). The next two propositions explain how the archetypal view would have been more natural to both the ancient Israelite audience and the New Testament audience (Prop. 9/10).

Anticipating an objection, Walton next reiterates his belief that Adam and Eve were real historical people in the past (Prop. 11). The next section fleshes out what Adam and Eve’s role would have been in the garden and how it relates to the functional emphasis (Props. 12-16). This also connects to Walton’s insistence that a large part of creation is not the material creation of stuff out of nothing but often the establishment of order out of chaos.

Having established all of this, the final few propositions are probably the most controversial and not helped by an excursus courtesy of N. T. Wright. First, Walton argues that we are subject to sin and death because of disorder rather than genetics (Prop. 17). That is to say, he wants to move past a typical Augustinian paradigm for original sin. The next proposition, that Jesus is keystone of God’s plan to restore a more perfect order in the creation is less controversial (Prop. 18). But then, the next chapter centers on Paul’s understanding of Adam and comes from Wright’s pen. If you’re familiar with Wright, you can guess what he says. You can also guess that his tone is not helpful in the discussion, and Doug Wilson explains it so I don’t have to.

From here, the grand finale is Walton’s suggestion that it is not essential that all people be descended from Adam and Eve (Prop. 20) and that we could be distinct and special creations of God even if common ancestry was true (Prop. 21). Had he led with this, I’m sure most readers would have balked. But, given the territory he covers ahead of time, I think he at least makes a good case for his position.

I am more inclined to buy Prop. 20 and have continued reservations about Prop. 21. Overall, I am sympathetic to Walton is trying to do and tend to agree with him more than I disagree. I think he pushes the functional emphasis too far, but I appreciate his meticulous approach to trying to argue for it. Likewise, I appreciate his understanding and insistence that Adam and Eve were real historical people, and his interest in exploring interpretive options. He strikes me as wanting to be faithful to the text as it stands, rather than being driven by scientific motivations to scrap a traditional understanding of Genesis 2-3.

But, then he concludes the book saying this:

It does not matter whether you as a reader are sympathetic to scientific conclusions or not. It does not matter whether you find the exegetical and theological conclusions in this book persuasive or not. If we can think beyond ourselves and accept the fact that a vital Christian faith need not have exactly the same interpretive profile that we believe, we might see that the church is bigger than any of us (209-210).

He says this in the context of arguing that we need to “stop the hemorrhaging” of young people leaving the church after coming to scientific conclusions that are incompatible with traditional interpretations of Genesis. On the one hand, I agree that we need to deal with the issue. On the other hand, I think he undermines his whole case if I’m free to dismiss his position after reading his book. It seems at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what I think about the early chapters of Genesis as long as I don’t make my interpretation a shibboleth.

To use Walton’s own favored speech act theory (put to interesting use in The Lost World of Scripture), the locutions of the book are about understanding Adam and Eve in Genesis. It would be normal to assume that the illocutionary effect intended would be to adopt the view argued for. Instead, at the end of the book you discover that the real intended effect is to see that other non-traditional interpretations of Genesis are available, so maybe you shouldn’t be so dogmatic about your personal view (especially if it’s the traditional one). It is an interesting twist for sure, but I would have rather not have the author give me the option to dismiss his argument after spending several hours working through it.

The upshot is that I personally benefited from reading the book and am now re-thinking some things of my own. I’m still processing it all, so I won’t share in detail right now what I’m thinking. To give you a hint, it has mainly to do with Genesis 2 as a sequel and Prop. 20 mentioned above. It also ties in with Genesis 6. In the meantime, I’d suggest picking up and reading Walton’s book if you’re interested in the early chapters of Genesis. The conclusion notwithstanding, I think he models a good way to argue your case. The endnotes are an abomination, not because of content though. I look forward to his next installment in the The Lost World series, and will be thinking on this one until then.


John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and The Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, February 2015. Paperback, 256 pp. $17.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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